Australian universities made a sector-record $5.3 billion surplus in 2021, a report released by the Federal Department of Education shows.
This figure represents a substantial increase from the collective $706.8 million surplus made by universities in 2020 and is the largest surplus ever recorded by the Australian university sector. The total surplus recorded by universities has only once exceeded $2 million, in 2019.
The $1.04 billion surplus recorded at the University of Sydney was comfortably the largest recorded by a single institution. USyd was followed by the University of Melbourne, with a $584 million surplus, and the University of Queensland with a $332 million surplus.
Of the 42 universities analysed, only three universities did not record a surplus.
The financial results were driven by increased Federal Government funding, at $20.2 billion across the sector, a ten per cent increase on 2020 funding.
While revenue from international student fees decreased from 2020, it still constituted 22.4% of total university revenue. The decrease from 2020 was sufficiently made up for by increased government funding. USyd received almost 40% of its revenue from international students in 2021, the second highest percentage of any university in the country.
Investment income increased more than three-fold compared to 2020, also contributing to increased revenue.
While revenue increased in 2020, Australian universities decreased their expenses by just over five per cent. Much of this was driven by cuts to staff, with universities spending 5 per cent less on staff than in 2020, despite increased revenue and increased cost-of-living pressures on staff over the year.
Expenditure on staff has only slightly increased since 2017, the report showed.
The record surplus calculated by universities in 2021 calls into question their decision to lay-off a combined 9,000 staff across the year, according to further Federal Government data. This number does not include casual staff, which make up 30% of workers in the sector, and is likely much higher.
National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) President, Alison Barnes, told the Guardian Australia that universities used the pandemic to “aggressively cut jobs,” while their “doomsday financial predictions” did not eventuate.
“That expensive and callous move is behind the massive workload pressure and under-resourcing we’re seeing across higher education,” Barnes said.
The University of Sydney is engaged in ongoing enterprise bargaining negotiations with the NTEU. Despite its surplus and cost-cutting, it has continued to refuse staff a pay rise at, or above inflation. In 2021, the University admitted to stealing $12.75 million of wages from casual staffThe University of Melbourne, which recorded the second largest surplus, has been taken to the Federal Court of Australia for stealing staff wages. It is currently paying back $22.5 of stolen wages, related to a separate claim.